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Starting Pitcher Rankings: White Sox place three in top 25

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Bill James' system has Chris Sale on top of the American League at the halfway point

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When Major League Baseball announced the initial All-Star rosters, it was strange to see Clayton Kershaw relegated to a spot on the Final Vote ballot, and stranger still to see him lose that vote to Carlos Martinez.

For one, Kershaw owns three of the last four National League Cy Young Awards, and was named last year's Most Valuable Player to boot. He'll probably fall short of taking home such hardware in 2015 thanks to an uncharacteristic cluster of home runs, but he still has a 2.85 ERA and leads all of baseball in strikeouts this year with 160.

That omission had players, reporters and analysts alike questioning the meaning of an All-Star Game if the league's biggest, bestest pitcher is nowhere to be found (he eventually found his way on after unavailable pitchers were filtered out).

It was even more glaring when looking at Bill James' Starting Pitcher Rankings and seeing that the No. 1 pitcher in baseball was omitted from the festivities while the next seven had secured a spot.

The Starting Pitcher Rankings are a pretty good tool for eyeballing a pitcher's star power, as it balances track record with recent performance. The concept is simple: James sought to create a system for starting pitchers that mirrored the rankings in golf and tennis. The top players aren't just ranked No. 1, but they have an ability to build a cushion over the second-best as well. That means two things:

  1. It often takes more than a bad month to knock them off the mountain.
  2. A change at the top is more like a changing of the guard.

When Roger Federer gives way to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, that's a big deal. Same goes for Rory McIlroy usurping Tiger Woods (and probably Jordan Spieth replacing McIlroy soon enough).

If you care about the mechanics of the system, he described them in The Bill James Handbook 2015:

The system is based on Game Scores. An average Game Score is 50; a really, really bad game is zero, and a fantastically good game is 100. 30% of the Game Score is added to the player's score every time he pitches, so that a pitch picks up 15 points if he just has a decent, ordinary type game -- a borderline Quality Start, let's say. Each starting pitcher starts at 300 when he makes his first major league start (300.000), and a player can't go below 3000, but with each start he also loses 3% of his previous score -- so, for example, if a pitcher racks up a "50" in his first major league start, his score goes from 300 to 306; 300, times .97, plus 50 times .30.

As long as a pitcher pitches well, his score moves upward from 300. When he pitches poorly, his score moves down. There is more to the system than that, of course; this isn't the place to get into every detail. There are park adjustments, and a pitcher's score goes down if he doesn't start on schedule, and goes down more rapidly if he doesn't make a start for several weeks. The won-lost record doesn't play into it; pitching 7 innings with 2 runs in a win is the same as pitching 7 innings with 2 runs in a loss.

If that's not enough detail for you, he went into more detail in this article from 2011. James has toyed around with this for a few years, but 2015 is the first time his site featured an active leaderboard that updates daily, and it's indeed a fun way to look at the way pitchers stack up across the league.

It's especially fun when it's a team like the White Sox, who have three pitchers in the top 25. It's certainly more fun than talking about the offense, and it's even more intriguing when their biggest star is creeping up on Kershaw.

Chris Sale

Start April 15 May 1 May 15 June 1 June 15 July 1 July 15
Rank 6
6 10 9 7 3 3 3
Score 516.5 517.9 507.9 511.0 531.3 550.9 563.0 570.2

Pitchers ahead at the start of the season: Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Felix Hernandez, Max Scherzer and David Price.

Pitchers ahead now: Kershaw, Scherzer.

Observations: At the start of the season, Kershaw held a 56-point edge over Sale, and a 37-point edge over the runner-up Bumgarner. Now, only 24 points separate first and third place, and Scherzer did wrest away the belt from Kershaw for a brief period. Despite the shaky start, the Condor has pitched well enough to keep Zack Greinke and his 1.39 ERA behind him by fewer than four points.

Jeff Samardzija

Start April 15 May 1 May 15 June 1 June 15 July 1 July 15
Rank 18 18 17 19 16 22 21 16
Score 472.8 469.5 471.5 472.0 487.1 474.7 481.7 489.9

Surrounded by at the start: R.A. Dickey and James Shields ahead; Doug Fister and Lance Lynn behind.

Surrounded by now: Dallas Keuchel and Jordan Zimmermann ahead; Shields and Chris Archer behind.

Observations: I was surprised to see Samardzija comfortably ahead of Quintana the whole time, but Game Score does favor workloads, and Samardzija pitches a little deeper into games on a consistent basis, even if it isn't always for the better. That being the case, he was also able to hold his ground -- and even gain a little -- during what has been a mildly disappointing 18 starts overall. Guys like Keuchel and Sonny Gray have shot ahead of him with their All-Star first halves, but others like Dickey, Stephen Strasburg and Jered Weaver have slipped well behind Samardzija due to injury, underperformance, or both.

Jose Quintana

Start April 15 May 1 May 15 June 1 June 15 July 1 July 15
Rank 27 27 32 24 26 26 29 23
Score 451.2 453.7 443.9 462.1 464.8 469.4 470.7 484.1

Surrounded by at the start: Yu Darvis and Phil Hughes ahead; Alex cobb and Francisco Liriano behind.

Surrounded by now: Adam Wainwright and Yovani Gallardo ahead; A.J. Burnett and Wei-Yin Chen behind.

Observations: Quintana's score took a beating when the Tigers thumped him for nine runs over four innings in Detroit on April 19, sending his ERA soaring to 8.40. Since then, he's posted a 2.98 ERA while averaging 6⅔ innings over 15 starts. Good thing these rankings don't include wins and losses.

John Danks

Start April 15 May 1 May 15 June 1 June 15 July 1 July 15
Rank 105 103 102 103 92 99 103 105
Score 372.6 370.7 379.5 382.8 397.0 390.2 390.2 393.5

Surrounded by at the start: Vidal Nuno and Hector Santiago ahead; Chris Young and Nathan Eovaldi behind.

Surrounded by now: Tim Lincecum and Brett Anderson ahead; Nick Martinez and Roenis Elias behind.

Observations: Danks' rankings underscore just how much churn there is in rotations across Major League Baseball. He's not going to fall too far simply because he's taking the ball every fifth day, and when he randomly throws a shutout, it can buoy his status for weeks.

Now, a guy like Santiago shows how one can break away from this morass with a couple of good months. He posted a 2.33 ERA over 17 starts in the first half, propelling him from No. 104 to No. 48.

Hector Noesi

Start April 15 May 1 May 15 June 1 June 15 July 1 July 15
Rank 114 111 115 117 121 125 144 151
Score 361.9 363.4 365.1 368.2 369.1 365.6 361.6 358.1

Surrounded by at the start: Matt Cain and Justin Masterson ahead; Michal Wacha and Fausto Carmona behind.

Surrounded by now: Ervin Santana and Masterson ahead; CC Sabathia and Eduardo Rodriguez behind.

Observations: This is what it looks like when a No. 5 starter falls prey to said churn. Noesi's useful-enough 2014 season gave him a head start over the pool of replacement-level starters, but his DFA will slowly but surely send him back to the land of 300 scores. There's some solace in seeing that Masterson is on the exact same ride, considering a MLB team paid him to be a solution ($9.5 million), whereas Noesi was merely a placeholder whose place is now held by...

Carlos Rodon

Start April 15 May 1 May 15 June 1 June 15 July 1 July 15
Rank NR
NR NR 181 173 154 164 156
Score ---
--- --- 308.8 322.1 341.7 344.0 355.7

Surrounded by now: Alex Cobb and Tyler Matzek ahead; Aaron Sanchez and James Paxton behind.

Observations: And this is what it looks like when a guy is breaking into a big league rotation. Rodon isn't the 156th-most talented pitcher, and he isn't worse than Noesi by any stretch of the imagination, but he's climbing up from a 300, and doing so while topping out at 6⅓ innings. If he can figure out efficiency over the last month or two, his trajectory will grow increasingly vertical.